Which Came First, Polygamy or Monogamy? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1, we saw that monogamy was the original marital practice of ancient humans. Monogamy, however, came under attack when the hunter-gatherers came under attack.

What led to the demise of hunter-gatherers?

The problem that led to the near-extinction of hunting-and-gathering cultures was their inability to support large population densities. The “carrying capacity” of any given landscape for a hunting culture is about one person per square mile. A settled agricultural society can support anywhere up to one hundred times that. As a result, since the Neolithic Revolution of ten thousand years ago, hunting-and-gathering groups have been constantly crowded off the land by even the most primitive agriculturalists.

The concept of primitive hunter-gatherers exhibiting “cave man” like behavior toward women is actually backwards. Tucker explains that

despite the popular conception of “the Cave Man” as a fierce and uncouth barbarian who practiced “marriage by capture,” hitting women over the head and dragging them back to his lair, in fact the hunting-and-gathering lifestyle seems to be relatively peaceful and equitable. Rather it was early agriculturalists who became fierce and warlike, constantly raiding neighboring villages, engaging in headhunting, torture of enemies, and even cannibalism. . . .

And herein lies the great paradox at the beginning of visible human history. It is the earliest settled agricultural people that have become warlike while the earlier hunter-gatherers seemed much more content to pursue their hunting and live at relative peace with their neighbors. Why? Because the earliest agricultural societies reverted to polygamy after almost 5 million years in which monogamy seems to have prevailed.

What are the consequences of the Neolithic Revolution that begun in the eastern Mediterranean region about ten thousand years ago?

Nomadic hunter- gatherers began settling down in permanent encampments and gradually gave up hunting for agriculture. The hybrid grains— wheat, millet, rye— were invented and soon enough food could be grown to support larger and larger populations. This agricultural revolution also appears to have occurred in the Indus Valley and in China as well, radiating outward in each case. It still continues today as the last remaining hunting-and-gathering tribes are gathered into the folds of sedentary civilization.

What were the results as far as marriage customs and the relations between the sexes are concerned? There were two major trends, which will be the subject of most of the rest of this book:

1) As the accumulation of greater wealth became possible, inequalities became more pronounced. One obvious and readily available inequality was that a man could take more than one wife. Some societies— the vast majority of cultures, according to the anthropologists— succumbed to this pattern. Others, however, eventually legislated against it, creating the very artificial situation where, even though there may be vast differences in wealth between individuals, a man can still take no more than one wife. This distinction ended up drawing a bright red line between primitive tribes and advanced civilizations.

2) The relationship between the sexes changed. With hunting-and-gathering, there was a very even division of labor between the sexes. As another conclave summoned in 1980 called “Woman the Gatherer” would establish, 60 to 70 percent of the food intake in hunting-and-gathering societies actually comes from women’s activities. Meat is only the preferred food . This creates a balance between the sexes that makes monogamy a very productive enterprise.

With the adoption of agriculture, however, things changed. In some cultures, men eventually took it up and became productive. In others, however, they have disdained farming as “women’s work” and contribute only occasional labor such as clearing land. . . . [T]he economic balance between the sexes that fosters monogamy was upset.

The parallels to the biblical Book of Genesis are striking. In Genesis, the first humans are monogamous. It is only after sin has entered the world that polygamy starts to become widespread. The Bible portrays polygamy as the cause of numerous instances of violence, conflict and strife among the Patriarchs and the kings of Israel.

  • sean

    When you say there was a stark contrast between civilizations and tribes revolving around legeslated momogamy, does that mean you consider all of the early Jewish people to be “primitive tribes”? The mighty king David was no more than the chief of a primitive tribe?

  • Huh? I don’t understand your question as it pertains to the blog post.